Bergerac is famous for literature, food—and bloody wars.
by Marco Respinti
Article 1 of 2
All its efforts to impose “laïcité” notwithstanding, France is still disseminated with crucifixes, statues of the Virgin Mary, and niches portraying local and universal saints. They stand at crossroads, guard places important and not, bless fields and vineyards, watch over bridges, resist in urban areas redesigned as parking lots, and welcome newcomers at the entrance of towns and villages—a vast number of which are named after saints, and would remain nameless should the country really eliminate all its religious vestiges.
In the rainy French summer of 2023, even the most casual visitor gets acquainted with the myriad of churches that offer shelter from sudden pourings. They may be large or tiny—overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, and at times Protestant. In the aisles and naves of many of the first lot, the casual visitor may have the occasion to learn from one of the itinerant expositions hosted by L’Œuvre d’Orient, self-described as “an organization of French Christians serving Christians of the East,” about the history, needs, and persecutions of believers in Jesus from the Middle-East to India. In some of the second variety, one may encounter interesting views, as in the Lutheran Temple of Bergerac.
Bergerac is a town in today’s Dordogne department, whose boundaries more or less retrace what was known as the Périgord region. A part of historic Aquitaine, it belongs to the linguistic-cultural koinè of Occitania that embraces a large pre-mountainous and Mediterranean territory, from Western Italy to the Pyrenees range between France and Spain. Recently divided into four provinces identified by four colors (green, white, purple, and black), Périgord is rich of “gourmandises” such as “foie gras,” truffles, “magret de canard,” figs, chestnuts, walnuts, and even salmon, sturgeon, and caviar. The valley of the river La Vézère is the world capital of prehistoric archeology, and the town of Bergerac lends its name to thirteen “appellation d’origine contrôlée” local wines. It also displays a literary vocation. Its served as the location of the tale “The Madman of Bergerac,” which features the famous French police inspector Jules Maigret, created by Belgian author Georges Simenon (1903–1989). Bergerac is even more famous as the scenario of the romantic drama about the cadet-poet Cyrano, immortalized by French author Edmond Rostand (1868–1918), who drew inspiration from a real French writer, Savinien de Cyrano, known as Cyrano de Bergerac (1619?–1655).
But readers of “Bitter Winter” may be more interested on the fact that Bergerac has been a focal geographical point for at least two major military events, one taking place in the late Middle Ages and another at the dawn of modern times. The first is the so-called “Hundred Years’ War,” or the series of battles that England and France fought, with various interruptions, from 1337 to 1453. Marrying the King of England, Henry II Plantagenet (1133–1189), in 1152, Eleanor of Aquitaine (c. 1122–1204) brought her country under the English rule. Eventually, English kings laid claims to the French throne. This, and other economic, social, and political reasons triggered war. Aquitaine was transformed into a vast battlefield. At times, English kings were able to control an even larger portion of French territory. Périgord became famous for its more than 1,000 castles (most of which still extant). During a phase of that long conflict, the river Dordogne (after which the modern French department is named), as well as the town of Bergerac crossed by its waters, functioned as a strategic border between the English and the French.
The second is the series of conflicts known as the “Wars of Religion,” which devastated Europe from the half of the 16th century to the half of the following. They were the result of what Welsh Catholic historian Christopher Dawson (1889–1970) called “the dividing of Christendom,” or the bloody struggle between Catholics and Protestants after Martin Luther (1483–1546)’s Reformation in 1517 and the Anglican Schism in 1534. In France, Protestants were a minority. They were generally called Huguenots, a name of a rather obscure origin. It probably derived from the German word “Eidgenossen,” meaning “confederates,” a reference to the Swiss Confederation, since Geneva, Switzerland, was the capital of Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509–1564). Theologically, Calvin brought the Reformation farther away from Catholicism than Luther. While Huguenots were Calvinists, the term eventually came to indicate all Protestants of France. In those times, Bergerac sided with the Protestant faction, becoming once again a border town.
During the Wars of Religion, Europe bled heavily. Christian spiritual unity was lost. Armed conflicts caused by religion opened a wound, which is culturally still hard to heal today. People were killed in the name of God, amounting to a shame that today many religious leaders, both Catholic and Protestant, and even non-Christian, condemn. Cruelties and misdeeds were committed by both sides.
But history debunks both the anti-Catholic black legend and the anti-Protestant white legend. In fact, the chief villain of this story was the state. Of course, both religious camps contributed to the bloodshed, but this happened chiefly for the mingling of politics with religious affairs.
This is not to be confused with the legitimate interest of religious devotees to participate in the political life of their countries. Religious liberty is in fact not only the right to believe in private, but also to live publicly according to the tenets of one’s faith. This certainly includes politics and the political life of a society.
What happened during the European Wars of Religions was rather the contrary. Not religion manifesting itself in politics, but the state entering into religion to control it. Without the political and miliary supports of princes and kings, the Protestant Reformation would not have taken roots and spread as it did. It is equally true that without the support of different rulers the Catholic Reformation and Counter-Reformation would not have enjoyed the success they achieved—and the diffusion of Protestantism in France would not have been as limited as it was.
The propagation of Christianity itself was always decisively helped by political institutions, from the Roman Empire in the first centuries to the creation of the Holy Roman Empire and beyond. This granted the practical conditions for the creation of a whole civilization that had both its benefits (not only for Christians) and its unavoidable human mistakes and errors. All religions, beyond Christianity, always benefited from the support, both cultural and military, of political institutions. But this remains something different from the politicization and militarization of religion, which transform faiths first into a feature of the state, then into a function of the state, and ultimately into a puppet or a lackey of the state. Once they have lost the salt of their true spiritual dimension, faiths may be dismissed as irrelevant or just as another tool of a secularist civil religion.
For this reason, the European Wars of Religions contributed to shape the philosophical meaning of “modernity” (something different both from modern times intended as a mere historic age and from technological “modernization”). They played a crucial role in the birth of the modern state, or simply the state, since the word “state” is applied to premodern political institutions—which had different roots and were conceived quite differently—by way of analogy only.
In the incipient “modernity,” framed also by the debate-in-arms of the Wars of Religion, it was the state that decided the public limits of religion, transforming the geopolitics of religion into a “geo-religion of politics.” In times when religion, Christianity, still mattered for peoples and still permeated institutions, religious masses on both sides were often moved, pushed, and even manipulated by rulers who used an increasingly politicized notion of religion as a molder of a new concept of citizenship and a carver of new national (and nationalistic) loyalties. This does not diminish the crimes of those religionists of both camps who exploited faith to wage and even justify war crimes and atrocities, but enlarges the view beyond simple sectarian struggles.
Nor does it imply that all believers involved in the severe confrontations of those times were deceivers and abusers. Theological disputes and divisions were not only a pretext for massacre and injustice. Piety and fervor never left both camps free only for beguilers. There were devout preachers and earnest reformers, sincere faith communities and saints worthy of canonization.
Eventually, as we will see in the second article of this series, this sowed the seeds of a more peaceful future.